Last week, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit to protect Virginia’s Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge from a massive marina and development.

Tucked in the far southeastern corner of Virginia, the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and its namesake, the Back Bay, harbor a rich array of aquatic life and vibrant bird populations and draw anglers and birders year round. The shallow bay, averaging just four feet, is ruled by the wind rather than lunar tides, making it a globally rare ecosystem. The bay is also designated an Aquatic Resource of National Importance by federal agencies, but that doesn’t automatically protect it from harm.

In 2005, a Virginia Beach developer applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a 76-slip commcercial marina in the bay just north of the national refuge. The project would result in a significant increase in motor boat traffic, which would disturb sensitive marsh birds and other wildlife, and threaten the recovery of the bay’s submerged grasses — critical for maintaining water quality and providing food and shelter for fish and birds. Propellers can easily get entangled in and destroy underwater grasses in the shallow bay.

Hundreds of local fishermen and other residents have consistently opposed the project, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, recommended against the permit, the wildlife agency saying the marina would pose “substantial and unacceptable” impacts to the bay.  The state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries also expressed grave concerns about impacts of the project on wildlife, aquatic grasses, and water quality.

However, after conducting only a minimal environmental assesment, the Corps issued the permit in 2008, saying that its no-wake zone policy, instituted in part of the bay in 2006, would protect the refuge — even though it acknowledged it had not enforced the no-wake policy nor did it have money to do so.

Last month, Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Friends of Back Bay and Back Bay Restoration Foundation, filed suit n U.S. District Court, challenging the permit for failing to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act and other laws.